On May 5, 1885, a group of civic-minded African American residents of the village of Mandeville, led by the late Olivia Eunio, created the Dew Drop Social and Benevolent Association.
A decade later the organization laid a cornerstone and in 1895 constructed a small wooden building on Lamarque Street in what is now called Old Mandeville, 3 1/2 blocks from Lake Pontchartrain.
The Association, like many created among African American residents following the end of the Civil War, had chiefly benevolent goals—to care for the sick with food and attention; to provide help in funeral arrangements; to provide food for needy and temporary housing—all during a period of time when black residents could not obtain various types of insurance.
The hall on Lamarque Street, unpainted and nestled in a grove of ancient live oaks, is now considered the world’s oldest virtually unaltered rural jazz dance hall. It was built the same year that scholars agree was the year of the birth of traditional jazz in New Orleans.
It was not long after its creation that pioneer New Orleans jazz musicians were boarding steam boats in the entertainment district of Milneberg on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain and coming across to Mandeville. By the early 1900s Mandeville was developing as a north shore lakefront resort village, and black musicians were finding a receptive audience for spirited Saturday night dances at the Dew Drop. While it now occupies a precious page in jazz history as a performance venue, the Association built the hall for many purposes—association meetings, community gatherings, parties and other functions.
According to oral histories collected by jazz authority Karl Koenig, the Dew Drop was a major hub for jazz musicians and legions of loyal fans during the 1920 and 1930s. By the 1940s, black owned businesses were emerging offering insurance and the social necessity for benevolent associations began to wane. By the early to mid 1940s original members of the Dew Drop Association had died and the building became virtually abandoned. At the same time a new organization and hall called the Sons and Daughters Hall on Marigny Avenue was formed leaving the Dew Drop unused for decades.
In its heyday, the Dew Drop was a sparkling center of musical activity for more than 40 years. Documentation reveals that among those playing at the hall on a regular basis were Buddie Petit, considered the premiere cornet player in early New Orleans jazz. Many argue that Petit was better than Louis Armstrong before Armstrong switched to trumpet and went on to create much of the enduring history of the musical form.
Sharing the small stage inside the building were New Orleans jazz icons Kid Ory, Bunk Johnson, The Independence Band with brothers Lucien, Isidore, Louis and Joe Fritz (often called the Fritz Brothers Band), the legendary Buddy Mandalay on banjo often with Buddie Petit’s band, Leon Lurent, Edmon Hall, Papa Celestin, Sam Morgan, Andy Anderson, George Lewis, the city’s first of many legendary clarinet players, Klebert Cagnolatti and Tommy Ladner, just to name a few. Perhaps of most historical importance is ample evidence that Armstrong played the hall before he left New Orleans and began taking jazz northward and eventually around the world. Legend has it that even up into the late 1930s and early 1940s Armstrong performed at the Dew Drop when he needed a break from demands of his growing international celebrity. He would spend quality time with relatives on Jackson Avenue a short walking distance east of the Dew Drop. Later that same year, the National Park Service, the New Orleans Jazz Commission, and the George Buck Foundation, with the cooperation of the city, teamed up to present traditional jazz in the building for the first time in about 60 years.